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Indonesia’s largest literary festival has just gotten underway, the world-renowned Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, in the scenic Balinese village of Ubud. Sadly, what should be a happy and open celebration of words and free expression has turned grim.

Books are displayed in the Indonesia booth at the Frankfurt book fair, Germany, October 13, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

Indonesian police and intelligence officers have pressured the festival organizers to cancel at least 15 events, most of them about mass killings which took place during Indonesia’s darkest period, in 1965 – when at least 500,000 left-leaning individuals, teachers, communist cadres, feminists, writers, and artists – were killed in an anti-communist purge to topple then President Sukarno. Many Indonesian government officials are extremely sensitive about discussion of the killings.

I have come to the festival to take part in various panels and to attend some of the amazing, diverse sessions, which range from children’s art classes to workshops on cooking exotic cuisine. But the mood here is one of suspicion and fear. Over cappuccino, participants speak in nervous whispers of government surveillance and censorship. A Balinese activist spoke of “possible intel [agents] among us.”

The atmosphere reminds me of the authoritarian Suharto era, when activists were always nervous, when basic distrust was the norm.

The scope of the censorship at this week’s festival was broad. Festival organizers cancelled three panel sessions, a photo exhibition, and three book launches, along with the screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s award-winning film, The Look of Silence. They explained that if they did not cancel the screening, they would “run the risk of the entire Festival being cancelled.”

Organizers also cancelled events related to “ForBALI” – a movement protesting a controversial reclamation project in southern Bali, where an artificial island will be built. The movement leaders include famous environmentalist Wayan Suardana, as well as punk rocker I Gede Ari Astina, also known as Jerinx of the band Superman Is Dead.

The sad fact is that what’s going on at the Ubud festival is not an isolated case. The Indonesian military and their thugs have already censored other events related to 1965 on Java and Sumatra. Both of Oppenheimer’s films, which have won international awards and acclaim, are still not allowed to be shown in Indonesia’s theaters or on television.

It’s terrible for Indonesia that almost two decades after the fall of Suharto, the government is still engaging in this type of behavior. The question now is whether Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, will step in and curtail the police and intelligence forces.

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